Over a hundred years since the heyday of the cowboy era, the American West still holds a spirit of those adventurers and pioneers. This isn’t just some pithy intro—I grew up in the West; my high school mascot was the cowboy and our rival school’s mascot was the buffalo (but was actually a bison, obviously). People living in subdivisions unironically wore cowboy hats and drove pickup trucks. Our county encouraged people to move in and enjoy our rich rural life, but cautioned would-be residents that the county still followed The Law of the West, meaning if you had a heart attack in your luxury ranch house in the middle of nowhere, good luck.
This is all to say that even in the era of smartphones and privatized space launches, the West still retains some of the mystique of its early European-settled years (with an insufficient and long-overdue apology to the American Indian tribes that suffered for that mystique), despite the fact that it’s become incredibly difficult now for a small operation to make a living farming or ranching. In The Last Cowboys, John Branch’s reporting of a family trying to keep their multi-generational ranch thriving in the 21st century takes away some of the romance of the cowboy mystique while revealing the hard work and constant worry that goes into running a ranch—and the unparalleled satisfaction that come from succeeding.
The Wright family runs a ranch in southwestern Utah, sort of by Zion National Park, on 1,200 acres claimed by patriarch Bill’s great-great-grandparents 150 years ago. Bill and his seven sons currently run the ranch, with help from Bill’s wife and six daughters, not to mention each of the kids’ growing families that bring over thirty grandchildren to the mix. And it’s a family affair, with father and sons and grandsons all pitching in to help turn young bulls into steers (three cheers for castration!), brand cattle, and the other nuts (ha!) and bolts of running a ranch.
That hefty family presence is both one of Bill’s primary motivations to make the ranch succeed and a source of his stress. As Branch writes, 1,200 acres “sounded like a lot until you saw it in context of faraway horizons.” Bill wants—needs—to expand his operation if it’s going to be big enough to support his children and their families. But the land around those 1,200 acres has been snapped up by developers and he’s faced with a dilemma: should he try to find a new way to get more out of the land that has supported six generations and counting, or should he take any of the offers to buy that land and move somewhere farther away from encroaching civilization?
Although that dilemma drives the bulk of the book, we only get a tepid answer at the end. Time still needs to tell what the best choice is for the Wrights, even if Branch does do his best to wrap it up in the face of life’s uncertainty. But the answer isn’t the point so much as examining the question and the innumerable factors informing it. It is in that examination that we learn of broader factors that affect those who attempt to maintain their Western heritage in this literal way, such as a loss of isolation and wondering if and to what extent one’s children want to maintain the family business.
In addition to that rumination on generational issues, Branch takes more than a cursory dive into the modern world of rodeo. Virtually all of Bill’s sons are rodeo champs, and his oldest, Cody, even gets to compete with his own teenage sons as they enter the circuit. Despite going to a high school where, again, the mascot was a cowboy, I had no idea the money that ran through the sport. Between the fees to enter, the expense of travel, and the constant doctor’s bills, it costs thousands to compete on the rodeo circuit—but if you win, you can win big. But as Branch lists injury after injury, you can’t help but think, you can win big, but at what cost? Branch details all this matter-of-factly, and I appreciated his frank but fair tone. It seems rural people are often held up as curiosities in nonfiction works, with their gun-toting, cow-castrating habits either put on display like relics from a more barbaric age or shown as details of a romanticized version of reality. But Branch makes their actions feel practical, relevant. This is a glimpse into a foreign world for most people, but it is one that still impacts our food chain, our land management, and even our national identity, and Branch succeeds at making that glimpse feel earnest and true.